CAMPBELL COUNTY, Ky. (FOX19) - A crucial meeting in the development of the former Beverly Hills Supper Club was abruptly canceled Wednesday, leaving several family members of those who died in the fire concerned about the fate of changes they want to see.
The fire on Memorial Day 1977 infamously killed 165 people and injured more than 200 others.
A $65 million development called Memorial Point was announced for the site last year. Plans from Ashley Commerical Group and Vision Realty include 100-200 apartments, 89 homes starting in the upper $300,000s and a for-profit, 79-unit assisted living facility.
The plan received a necessary zone change and conditional use permit from the Campbell County Planning and Zoning Commission in July. The zone change is expected to go before Southgate City Council next Wednesday, Aug. 19.
A memorial at the bottom of the hill is slated to include the names of the victims, a list of local first responder units that responded to the fire, a list of the federal and state fire safety regulations implemented afterward and maps of the site in 1977.
A memorial is also proposed for an area that will be developed as part of the residential project at the top of the hill.
Debate has centered on whether the second memorial, which the developers have said would be in the care of an HOA, should be open to the public.
A meeting on the issue between developers and Respect the Dead, a group of victims’ families advocating for the park to be public, was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
That meeting was cancelled without explanation just before it was set to begin, according to Attorney Steven Megerle, who represents members of Respect the Dead.
“It’s sad that a developer would be so callous as to cancel a meeting at the 11th hour, when these folks were finally going to see that something may be done to honor their family members,” Megerle told FOX19 NOW.
Robin Thornhill says he lost four family members in the blaze.
“My dad was the only one with an open casket, and I remember that at 5 years old,” he said. “They are up there, and for them to say they are not, it’s an insult.”
If Southgate City Council approves the zone change without the conditions requested, residents and family members say they will file suit in Campbell Circuit Court.
Kentucky law prevents a city from allowing buildings or development on burial grounds.
Sarah Houseman, an attorney representing Ashley Commercial Group counters the site isn’t a burial ground.
“While there were many who lost their lives that evening, there is simply no factual basis or legal support that this property was ever set apart or used for burial purposes (...),” Houseman wrote in a letter to Megerle dated Aug. 11.
Megerle provided the letter to FOX19 NOW. It is included in full below.
The letter accuses Megerle’s clients of “not working with the established memorial group,” while the developer “has offered to include restrictions in the homeowner declarations for the site which would grant Beverly Hills Supper Club survivors, their descendants and others who were affected the right to visit the site and place a memorial there.”
Speaking for Ashley Commercial Group, Houseman says the memorial at the top of the hill will consist of a marker or a placard depicting a map of where the club once stood to serve as a “reference point.” But if Megerle’s clients want to install a fountain as well, they will have to find a way to pay for it.
The company released the following statement:
“Ashley Commercial Group fully understands and embraces the need for a memorial that ensures that the people who were lost in the fire will never be forgotten. We will be working with a group of survivors and family members of victims as well as with Southgate city officials on a memorial planning committee. We have selected an appropriate, accessible and fitting spot for a memorial planned for the site that will be located along US 27. We are also planning to install a memorial marker or placard depicting a map of the Beverly Hills Supper Club that will be located within a community park that is planned in the development.
Ashley Commercial Group is mindful of the pain this site brings to many and have made concerted efforts to coordinate and locate the memorial by working with interested parties that have been proposing a memorial on the site for decades.
Following the information presented at the public meetings. The developer has made modification to our plan in addition to the requirements of our Development Agreement to address the concerns presented. We modified the locations of buildings as well as made modifications to the neighborhood association to allow for additional access rights to the community park in the development for those effected by the tragedy.
With regard to the assertion by this group’s legal counsel that the developer has refused to meet with community groups - this is simply not true. We have had multiple phone conversations, video conferences, and public meetings. These discussions have included multiple members of this group. We have made offers to meet with members of this group in the past several weeks that were ignored. Additionally, we offered to meet today with his group in the absence of our and their attorneys (it has become apparent their attorneys’ only interest is to threaten legal action on unfounded allegations and has shown no interest in meaningful engagement). This offer to meet today was not accepted.
Ashley has taken steps to include and address community concerns. We remain committed to listening to community members’ constructive input and working with them and encourage a constructive, meaningful dialog.”